After Chicago’s Alinea had to close its dining room in March, it quickly made a dramatic shift from the elaborate fine-dining experience it’s known for to a more casual carryout model. The move was facilitated by retooled software from reservation platform Tock. Here, as part of our Stories from the Front Lines series, Nick Kokonas, who leads both companies, shared what it looks like to rethink two business models inside of a week.
On Alinea pivoting from fine-dining to carryout comfort foods: I think at first everyone was trying to be super creative as usual, which is great. But not now. So I had to keep telling talented people to dial back the creativity for now. Just get up and running with delicious food. We don’t need niche stuff right now.
We are doing a ton of sales compared to being closed, but revenue is of course a lot less than normal. We are paying everyone who comes in and expanding that. We are working with our landlords to defer rent. We will build a reserve of cash to reopen, pay obligations, and distribute the rest across the team.
On supporting staff in tough times: We’ve let [Alinea Group] employees know that we have their back and that money from our operations will flow to them. Everyone has my direct email account. If employees need something, I’m personally ready to help — before, during and after this.
On how Tock retooled its software to support carryout and delivery at full-service restaurants: We had about 15 engineers/designers/senior-level management people working for about a week more or less constantly. We utilized existing data structures of “tables” to convert to “inventory” time slots. We built it to resemble how a kitchen works in a sit-down restaurant instead of just slinging burgers out the back door. We are using it for The Alinea Group and it’s working like a charm. About 215 restaurants are online and actively selling right now. We have over 850 in the queue.
Many of them are now realizing that it will likely be months before they are able to reopen and even then ... they may need to keep curbside pickup as an option to stay viable.
On how his teams adapted: We didn’t do everything perfectly by any stretch, but I’m content with what we’ve done. We saw the situation clearly, came up with plans, and worked to implement those plans. And we did it under a lot of stress and terrible circumstances. We owned our situation and our future.
This is part of our Stories from the Front Lines series.